SDSR 2015: An overview of the key points
The debate about what will be in the UK’s 2015 Strategic Defence and Security (SDSR) review is over. It started before the ink was dry on the 2010 review, which saw sweeping cuts including the dismantling of Britain’s carrier strike capability with the sale of the Harrier, slashing the number of Challenger 2 main battle tanks by nearly half, and the short-sighted decision to abandon the Nimrod MRA4 without a replacement, leaving this island nation without a maritime patrol capability. But yesterday, prime minister David Cameron announced the details of a £178 billion defence equipment plan – marking a £12 billion boost – to support the armed forces in their strategic goals over the next decade.
The headline news? The maritime surveillance capability gap will be plugged by the acquisition of nine new Boeing P-8 maritime patrol aircrafts; two new rapidly deployable ‘Strike Brigades’ will be formed by 2025 supported by six variants of the new Ajax armoured vehicle family; the Typhoon’s life will be extended by 10 years to 2040 and the number of squadrons will increase by two to a total of seven; Eight Type 26 Global Combat Ships and "at least" another five ‘lite’ multi-purpose variants will replace the ageing Type 23 Frigates; the cost of four new submarines responsible for the UK’s continuous at sea nuclear deterrent has increased from £25 billion to £31 billion; and the acceleration of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme with budget set aside for 138 jets, with 24 of those in service by 2023 rather than the eight originally planned.
In the wake of the terror attacks in Paris on 13 November, the UK government had already announced last week that it would be investing a further £2 billion into its intelligence services, increasing personnel numbers by around 15% and acquiring new communications equipment, weapons and vehicles.
To help finance these new acquisitions, the axe has had to fall elsewhere. Hard. The restructuring of defence capability instigated in the 2015 review will see a 30% reduction in the number of civilians employed by the MOD to 41,000 and a downsizing of the built estate by 30%. Outside of the MoD, austerity savings have been found in police and welfare budgets to make way for the £12 billion defence equipment boost. For once Defence has not been a casualty of the Treasury axe.
The review sets out the development of the new Joint Force 2025, replacing the Future Force 2020 strategy, which is said to be "a more capable force to meet the challenges of today and ready for those of tomorrow". Other commitments laid out in SDSR include the acquisition of another two Offshore Patrol Vessels, more than 20 new Protector armed remotely piloted aircraft, which will more than double the number of the Reaper aircraft they are replacing, and doubling the investment in the Britain’s Special Forces’ equipment. It was also announced that the defence budget will increase by 0.5% above inflation for the rest of this Parliament.
It is clear that this review is significantly more focused on the ‘strategic’ element that it is named after than its 2010 predecessor, which was widely acknowledged as a shambolic cost-cutting exercise.
The Former Chief of the General Staff Lord Dannatt writing in The Telegraph said the review was "an honest attempt to rectify" the errors of five years ago.
"At its [the SDSR strategy] heart is an understanding that we cannot choose between conventional defences against state-based threats and the need to counter threats that do not recognise national borders," the review states. "Today we face both and we must respond to both. So over the course of this Parliament our priorities are to deter state-based threats, tackle terrorism, remain a world leader in cyber security and ensure we have the capability to respond rapidly to crises as they emerge."
The review sets out four particular challenges that are likely to drive UK security priorities for the coming decade. They include the "increasing threat posed by terrorism, extremism and instability"; the "resurgence of state-based threats"; the impact of cyber threats; and the "erosion of the rules-based international order, making it harder to build consensus and tackle global threats."
The rise of ISIL is of course at the front and centre of the political discourse for this new investment in the UK’s security infrastructure and defenceequipment. But other threats – Putin’s Russia, China’s aggressive sea power expansion across Asia, instability in the Middle East, serious and organised crime, and the increasing prevalence and impact of major cyber attacks – all provide context for the SDSR announcements in a world that is becoming more dangerous, not less. The question is, does this strategic review go far enough?
While the SDSR rumour mill can now be shutdown, the debate about the UK’s position in the world and whether it will have the military capability to support it, both now and in the future, has only just begun.